Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 retroblogging

The curtain closes on 2015 and my furious, year-end sprint to clear my blog queue, or at least slow its rate of growth. I am trying to tag all the retroblogged posts with the "retroblog" tag, so that you can try to peruse them, although I recognize that the fact that they are interspersed with other posts, and with previously retroblogged posts, does not make this easy.

My project:retroblog tag is from 2012, which shows that I am very consistent in my lagging and also my resolution to catch up. There's a new tag, simply "retroblog", which gets applied to everything blogged vastly out-of-time, without marking it as my 2012 project which may never reach resolution.

Here are the posts that are newly, retroactively inserted into the blogging timeline since last we reckoned:
I'm embarrassed that this list is so short, and also about that last item. But really, why? I fell short of a goal I set myself which no one else really cares about. Take that, internet! Take my confessional failure to succeed at arbitrary self-set goals, and churn on it. There, now it's gone, isn't the flash of internet information great? Squeeze some emotion out, and move on.

This post's theme word is discomfit, "to confuse or embarrass." or "to thwart the plans of." O! discomfiting blogging failure! Woe is me, etc., etc.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Traced against the sky

No matter where we walked in [the touristy part of] San Antonio, an orange squiggle followed us, always just catching the corner of the eye. It is La Antorcha de la Amistad,and it makes me think of a 3D-printed puzzle or unusual key. Maybe to a geometer's lair?
The color gradients across the sky and the sculpture were very appealing to me.
I'm not sure how the lock would work, exactly --- maybe you put the key in, turn slightly, move again in the z axis, turn again, then shimmy in a move given by a simple equation in polar coordinates?

Maybe it's the extrusion of some more complicated being into our space, and the intruder is trying to be polite and not move in the hopes that no one will notice.

This post's theme word is bidentate, "having two teeth or toothlike parts." Thank goodness the tentacle was only bidentate.

Austin dawn

The fact of living on a sphere, and gradually rotating to face a flaming ball of plasma and gas, is occasionally lovely and dramatic.
Just look at those early-morning colors, splattered across the bottom of the cloud layer. So neat. Plus, thematically appropriate: Austin orange, everywhere.

This post's theme word is purl, "to flow with a rippling motion," or "the sound or curling motion made by rippling water." The sunlight streams across the purling clouds.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Elizabeth Bear's Pinion tells the story of people on a shipwrecked generational starship, and their struggles with each other and the starship's fragmented AI to try to escape their own demons (as well as the star system, whose binary star is about to have an explosively destructive event).

The book is permeated with biblical imagery and metaphors, as well as quotes from the "New Evolutionist Bible," which bears a certain thematic resemblance to the New Testament, although its contents and subject matter is different. The various AIs title themselves "Angel of X", as in: Angel of Death, Angel of Life Support Services, Angel of Knives, Angel of Memory, Angel of Electricity, Angel of Communication, Angel of Wires, Angel of Stars, Angel of Voids, Angel of Poison, Angel of Biosystems, Angel of Propulsion, ...

The humans, and their enclosed habitats, are not quite familiar --- they are the result of centuries of advanced bioengineering tinkering, a project whose original goal was to improve en route to the destination, and whose proximate goal has been to self-modify and selectively breed and improve in order to survive stranded in space. The biblical theme continues here, as many humans have wings, or space-hardening adaptations, or perfect memory, or echolocation, or other senses not easily tersely-summarizable.

The book is great, enjoyable, well-written. The characters are interesting, sympathetic without being helpless, smart without being geniuses, weak without needing rescuers, crafty without relying on deus ex machina. They each have limited knowledge, as do the AIs, as do we the readers, and Bear handles these deftly, gradually unfolding a comprehensive picture of what is happening throughout the (enormous, interstellar!) spaceship, as well as throughout the ship's remaining infosphere, and at a social and interpersonal level (and even internal, psychological level) with and between the characters. It is self-aware without being trite, or exploiting dramatic irony, but readily acknowledging the various points of the book that are internally consistent, but nonsensical to the reader, for example (p. 150):
Primogeniture is a stupid way to run a starship.

This post's theme word is ruction, "an insurrection" or "a disorderly quarrel." A starship ruction is no small thing, mere "mutiny" is an insufficient descriptor.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Company cars as status symbol

Metafilter pointed me to a BBC documentary with a series of interviews with men, apparently travelling salesman, who talk about their [company-provided] cars, and the status they display, and empower, in situations of driving, and sales, and society. The power of conformity. Some of them explicitly mention wanting specific cars in order to exhibit a certain status, and others abhor those cars for being associated with that same status (because they want to be recognized as higher-status).

I found that I kept waiting for the punchline. It sounded so stereotypically consumerist, so hyperbolically, purely brand-oriented, that I was looking for winks to the camera. Modern insincerity.  (Or at least an explicit brand tie-in --- they relentlessly repeat the brand names and features and status --- apparently tie-ins are modern, too.) But it seems irony is a twenty-teens modernity, because these interviewees don't care about alienating the viewer. They frankly discuss the importance of cars-as-status-symbols in their lives in a way that I find appalling.

For example:

  • One guy changed his car from the standard car that went with his job to something cheaper and more fuel-efficient, for reasons of economy: "What a disaster that was. My business failed, and I lost a lot of money, I lost my nice big house, and it was even a major factor in the breakup of my marriage." @44m30s Subsequently, he got a new job, which came with a Mercedes, and was trying to "rebuild" his life.
  • Regarding different models: "The big difference between a GL and a GL-A is the A. Because the A stands for: I am bloody brilliant, I am quicker than you on the road. It is an extension of a man's ego. ... an A badge on the back, it means, 'I've got status,' that's what it means."
  • On working up the corporate ladder in order to obtain a better car: "I'll die! If I have to work until I sweat blood and die, I'll get one of them." @31m

It's weird to hear people talk so earnestly about these markers of social/consumption status that are all (1) no longer relevant, and (2) so outstripped by today's markers. All the cars they are driving are old and unremarkable now --- clinging to them seems quaint. But of course we have modern equivalents (flashy smartphones come to mind) which will look just as dated to future critics. And as arrogant and insufferably classist as these interviewees sound, we produce much more abhorrent media in much greater volumes to repulse our future descendents (certain reality TV, youtube channels, vine ephemera, and whatever the latest thing is... micro-vine? snapchat?).

Part of me is worried that I am disdainful of these rapacious car-drivers because I think myself better than them, which is just as icky. I want to be incomparable to them. I don't have a job as a salesman, I don't worry about the letters on the backs of cars that indicate the specific luxury options. I reassure myself that possessing and identifying this worry means I don't actually compare myself to them, but then of course if I need reassurance it's because we are comparable. And so on. It's a vicious mental cycle, the sort of thing that reading too much LessWrong all at once can induce.

Basically they're all just signalling, which I am fine with. It seems like it should mean nothing, but then again, it means something precisely because they all care so much. Repeatedly the men talk about how they are more courteous on the highway to cars that outrank them, and how they spurn cars that are inferior. It seems a strictly enforced hierarchy, then: "better" cars pass ("You're just acknowledging that he's got more power than you." --- I think he means physical engine power, but of course it seems to be social power, too), and "worse" cars are not allowed to pass ("... his attempt at overtaking me has failed, and that's a success." 23m20s).

What I have condensed from LessWrong, SlateStarCodex, and elsewhere on the intellectually-self-improving, hyper-literate internet, is that identifying signaling is useful in finding a way to interact with the system that works towards your own goals, or helps reveal underlying truths. So, as with all slightly unpleasant experiences, I can perhaps focus on a positive takeaway --- learning by contrast --- from this variously unpleasant, infuriating, and unsettling clip.

Spoiler alert: there never was a punchline.

This post's theme word is parping "that makes a honking sound." Via Miéville's Kraken, p.257. I thought it was a tuba, but the unusual parping sound originated from a roadside dispute between cars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Yule logs

The celebratory Christmas-themed rolled, frosted cake is called a "buche de noël", a Yule log.  
It comes in many flavors, sizes, colors, and options.
It is a fancier, dressed-up, high-quality Twinkie. (I'm guessing. I've never actually tried one, except maybe in French class in the US, so that barely counts.)
The tiny sizes are called "buchettes", loglettes.

This post's theme word is yare, "easily maneuverable, nimble," or "ready, prepared." The logs for Yule are yare. Yare Yule logs, come and get 'em!

An utterly perfect day

The day is clear and crisp, like an autumnal day, full of promise and energy.
The sky is full of clouds that are worthy of a fresco.
The light is diffuse, bright, soft, forgiving.
The weather, location, pressure, local cuisine --- it is all in wonderful synergy today. I feel ready to have my portrait painted, or to head an army and invade a neighboring country. I could levy a new tax, or break with the Pope. But probably this is a surfeit of reading historical novels.

This post's theme word is mondegreen, "a word or phrase resulting from mishearing a word or phrase, especially in song lyrics." Today is a perfect day to dance through the streets and belt pop mondegreens, leaving a wake of bemused locals.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Cue the pipe organ

The nighttime lighting on this church's gothic façade is dramatic. It nearly evokes lightning from the sky, except that it was cold and clear tonight, and simply pleasant all-around.
The Paroisse Saint-Eustache, near Les Halles.
I imagine the gargoyles frolicking in this junglegym long after all humans have gone to sleep.

This post's theme word is marmoreal, "resembling marble or a marble statue, as in smoothness, whiteness, hardness, coldness, or aloofness." The marmoreal rooftop inhabitants unfold their slow, alien lives just above our heads.

Christmas markets

Living in Europe is living in exotic lands, which oscillate between the boring quotidian and the fascinatingly foreign. Markets in the street? Bizarre, and probably an impediment to free circulation in my home zone. But here, a normal seasonal thing, as if the seasons still drove the production of agricultural products. As if we lived before electricity and refrigeration and quick, cheap transport.

But who can argue with this pile of cheeses?
The green, blue, and pink ones are worrisome.
"Look at these bountiful piles!" is the theme of the displays. As usual, all goods are sequestered by type, and each merchant has one extremely narrow specialty. This contributes to the quaint dissonance, the romantic peculiarity of being an immigrant.
Piles and piles, plus hanging from the roof.
The overall winter holiday cheer here is engaging and fun, with a usual French focus on the edible and drinkable delights. Roasted chestnuts, mulled cider and wine, cheeses and meats, waffles and crêpes. An entire hidden alley where children could sneak away to see animatronic animals (including that ever-present Christmas Octopus!) and a complementary alley where adults could sneak away to taste champagne and sautéed mushrooms. And of course, everywhere candy, interspersed with all other goods. It's a sugary season, for the eyes and tastebuds alike.

This post's theme word is decorticate, "to remove the outer layer, such as the bark, rind, husk, etc." Most preserved winter foods must be decorticated before mastication, ingestion, and digestion.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: n+1 (again)

I laughed aloud at Caity Weaver's summary of the movie:
You might be thinking, “Surely the weapon has shields, to protect it from such an attack?” Yes, Shirley, the weapon does have shields to protect it from such an attack. Here’s the gang’s plan for disabling them: “We’ll disable the shields!” It works.

This post's theme word is nestor, "a wise old man." The movie suffered a curious paucity of nestors.

Friday, December 18, 2015


This very pleasing fruit display used mirrors and standard-size rectangular boxes.
The mirror symmetry is part of the pleasing visual aspect, as well as the variety of colors and the roundness of the apples. I like that the mirrors and shelves are both angled, so that the reflected image is showing a side of the fruit not visible from the front.

Apples, apples, apples.

As seen in Lausanne, Switzerland.

This post's theme word is tegular, "relating to, resembling, or arranged like tiles." The tegular apple crates filled the shelf and my view.

Star Wars: n+1

No spoilers: It was cute, with the expected (large) amount of fan-service, call-backs, and foreshadowing of predictable events. The villain was actually villainous, with depth of character and a psychological edge that was scary.

As always, the evil side made a series of logistical, engineering, and personnel choices that resulted in catastrophic failure of a[n ill-conceived] plan. I would be really surprised if this did not happen in a Star Wars movie. Also, explosions in space made noise.

I predict that rolling robots will be a popular toy in the upcoming months.

I shared the audience with several storm troopers and one wookie. They did not fight where I could see. No jedi, at least not that I could tell, but I guess they could be disguised as normal people.

This post's theme word is anserine, "of or relating to a goose; silly, stupid." Yet another anserine evil plan thwarted!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Santa's path

For the convenience and delight of local children, Santa's appearances on the Champs Elysées are prescheduled and at a fixed location.
He gets a boost up to the sleigh (by ladder/elevator scaffollding), and then traverses the sky, pulled by reindeer (and rigging). For maybe 20 meters. Then he disembarks and descends, and probably meets his adoring fanbase. I didn't stick around for the crowds at the appointed time and place.

I did think about what kind of toy-workshop capers could be executed in the designated absence of the boss.

This post's theme word is agrement, "formal approval, especially one given by a country to the proposed diplomat from another country," or "grace notes: notes applied as an embellishment on a piece of music." Mr. S. Claus received his agrement and entry visa to France in early December.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The End of the Sentence

The End of the Sentence is a novella by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard. It's a mystery, suspense, horror sort of story, where the tension rises because vague warnings are sort of menacing, and the psychological tenor of the writing suggests the horror of the unknown. It's fear-porn, for those who like the titillation of the uncanny.

I read it because I sometimes just follow recommendations from I should know better. The uncanny and unknown doesn't titillate me; it makes me want to set up a falsifiable hypothesis and a series of experiments. It makes me want to find out what exactly is going on; I don't enjoy wallowing in the feeling of mystery and uncertainty. Ominous, unknown monsters are only as scary as your mind can scare itself; my mind is much more interested in the known monsters. Given the choice between fearing a haunted house and fearing earthquakes, I'd certainly fear earthquakes more: they're real, they're measurable, they're hard to predict.

So obviously I wasn't crazy about this novella. It was well-written, but the morsels of information that were dangled as horror-bait just irritated me. Every vague allusion to "the crimes of my past" or "my guilt" just made me impatient for the reveal. What were the actual crimes? I can completely suspend judgement until I know; it seems useless to judge the narrator for how guilty he feels or acts.

I will admit, with some guilt of my own, that I read to the end in the hopes that the title would be a pun, and that the "end of the sentence" would be the end of an actual, verbal sentence, and not just the end of a jail term.

My bad.

This post's theme word is flagitious, "extremely wicked or criminal." The flagitious behavior was duly punished.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Friday night III: La Voix Humaine

La Voix Humaine is an opera for one voice. Alone. I have never encountered such a thing, but this was curious and fascinating and jarring. The production I saw featured very stark scenery --- an ornately tiled floor and a single white sofa --- and a straight-overhead camera view, which was projected on the backdrop. This gave an unsettling double-view of Barbara Hannigan in the role of "Elle" (simply: Her), who threw her body across the stage in sprawling and unusual configurations.

The opera's premise is that She is talking on the phone, and so at first it seems natural, and intimate, that we see Her sprawl on the floor, drape herself across the sofa, lunge, and flop as one does when engaged in a protracted phone call, meandering across the stage as the topic of conversation wanders. The doubled view, once from the front and once from squarely above, makes the single performer fill the space; her every gesture seems significant, and the way her limbs trail behind her voice, aligning with patterns in the floor-tiles one moment and then skewing disorderly across them the next.

The music is dissonant and bizarre, which pretty accurately reflects the way it feels to hear only one half of a not-particularly-discursive intimate phone call. This discomfort is enhanced by the frequent breaks where the call is interrupted or dropped, and has to be re-established; the phone rings, the orchestra beeps and plucks. I never really felt like any songs happened, just a sort of long series of short bursts of tones and phrases, although I leave this categorization to the musical experts.

It was great. The staging of this production gradually suggests, and then strongly suggests, and then outright reveals, that She is an unreliable narrator --- even though we are watching her, as she describes her actions, there is a weirdly discordant process happening. I found it very engaging, but I was also nervous the entire time, faintly on edge about what would happen. Continually reevaluating what happened earlier, what she said, what it sounded like, how she moved, and comparing with my current version of events. The music definitely reinforced this tension. The Wikipedia plot summary does not reflect the plot of the version I saw; this production used the same libretto, but told a much darker story with a definite conclusion.

I don't want to spoil it, because I hold unreliable narrators in great esteem. I enjoyed watching it once, but I don't have any particular desire to watch it again; too tense.

This post's theme word logomarchy, "a dispute about words," or "a battle fought with words." Beware the telephonic logomarchy.

Friday night II: Le Château de Barbe-Bleue

Bluebeard's Castle struck me as darkly humorous, like a twisted gothic take on an already-perverse Gorey story. Let me summarize the plot (spoiler alert):

Bluebeard brings his love, Judith, back to his castle for the first time. She loves him dearly. (A pause to note: Ekaterina Gubanov's voice was seductive, luscious, dark, complex. Fantastic. Compelling.) But his castle is so dark! Won't he give her a key to open some rooms, and let in the light? Bluebeard reluctantly gives her a key: to the dungeon, it turns out, which is full of chains and torture implements and they are covered and dripping with blood. Very shocking, but Judith soon begs Bluebeard for another key, to air out his dim and shady castle, and sings of her love for him as motive.

The next key opens the armoury, where all his weapons are ranked and stored, but every blade is stained with blood, which pools on the floor and is rusting everything. Pretty bad housekeeping. Judith may sing beautifully and her love is very compelling, but she does not see where this is heading, and asks for more keys. Apparently each door has its own key in this castle, and Bluebeard is something of a security nut, although the ease with which he metes out his keys to Judith suggests that he has, at best, intermittent relationship boundary issues.

Judith gets three more keys, having assured Bluebeard of her very strong love and her aversion to the dark and forbidding atmosphere in the castle. In a turn of events, the next key opens the jewel-house, full of ornate jewelry, but as Judith tries it on she finds that all of the jewelry is coated in blood. Unsettling. She pauses, but Bluebeard is getting into the reluctant swing of things and opens the next door: surprise! It opens onto a garden; at least one audience member is confused by the geometry of space in Bluebeard's domain, further obfuscated by the very abstract staging (Krzysztof Warlikowski) and direction (Esa-Pekka Salonen) which has the rooms, each a transparent fishtank-style chamber, sliding across the stage on rails so that they semi-obscure each other. The pool of blood extends over more than one room's floor, and when the rooms line up the edges of the blood match; it is a gruesome puzzle, but Judith can't put it together. Maybe the fifth balcony's elevation gave me a perspective she lacks. Literally.

A garden is nice, though, right? Yes, full of lovely flowers --- but they are [let's all say it together!] bathed in blood! Bluebeard has unorthodox horticultural practices, to say the least, sanguinely watering his blooming plants. Bluebeard proceeds to open the next door, which reveals a vista, stretching over all Bluebeard's holdings: lands stretch away from the window (or balcony? again, geometry is not a strong point here), and Judith is astonished at their beauty. At last, the castle is open and airy, well-lit.

That's not so bad, you think, and there's not a single thing on the balcony that is drenched in blood! Maybe Bluebeard's housekeeping is not so atrocious. Right. But wrong. Clouds scudding across the sky cast blood-red shadows over it all, and again the music and Judith's mood turn sour and foreboding. She sings of her fear, but then also... her love? and she demands more keys; no room can be left locked to her. One gets the sense that, as with many operas, there is a belabored metaphor here; apparently, the composer-libretticist duo had some nagging romantic relationships, and felt that women demanded access to every corner of a man's heart. If I were writing an essay, that is the metaphor I'd stick with, as it is heavy and obvious; essay details would weave in and out of musical terminology and staging, adding up subtleties to reinforce whatever particular point I fixed on as the focus of the essay.

But this is no essay; welcome to blogging, where text has less structure, unclear intent, and the writer's voice can be boldly first-person! (Look at how atrociously I break my paragraphs and break into my narrative.) I was satisfied with Bluebeard's dark castle, but Judith demanded more keys, and to fling open all the doors. Bluebeard insisted that this was as light as the castle would get, which nearly caused me to emit an uncultured guffaw: why did he have her start with the dungeon and armoury, then? And surely he knew that they were blood-splattered. He wasn't surprised by it.

By and by, Judith and her persistent, yet fearful, yet determined, yet cautious love wheedle another key from Bluebeard. The stage was filling with rooms, so I got the sense this had to be close to the end; little physical or emotional space remained. Behold! A new room rolled out, and not a single thing in it was bloody. Quelle surprise! Instead, it contained a mute child and a lake of tears. (Only the lake is mentioned in the opera, so the eerie child must have been a production detail.) Bluebeard is super-sad about this and asks Judith to please not ask him any questions. She gets upset and takes off the bloody jewelry she is still wearing from before. This audience member has a momentary reflection that some relationships are just really, really ill-fated.

Judith obeys his request, kind of, though she is still persistent in an indefinite way. She keeps cajoling and eventually obtains a key, definitely the last, which Bluebeard gives her but begs her not to use. She immediately uses it; so much for feminine fidelity and obedience, and her love having any sway over her actions.

To everyone's great surprise, the final door does not conceal the corpses which produced the blood used as (apparently) household decoration throughout the castle. Instead, it reveals three inexplicably-living women, Bluebeard-the-polygamist's current wives. He sings a consummately creepy song about how great they all are, praising each one specifically and showing her off to Judith, before forcing Judith to put the bloody jewelry back on and join them in the wife-prison-room.

The end.

Based on this opera alone, aliens would form a bleak expectation of the relations between human men and women. And also of human interior decorating. But our musical taste is excellent.

This post's theme word is avulse, "to pull off or tear away." The repulsed woman avulsed the gorey jewelry.

Friday night I: Palais Garnier

I live a life of sumptuous luxury. (Alternating with canny poverty, so that it all averages out.) Last night was a brief dart into the extravagant, rococo Palace Garnier to see a double-feature opera, Bluebeard's Cast-Bleue and La Voix humaine.
Palace Garnier's entrance hall is a masterwork of frothy carvings and trompe l'oeil paintings imitating the same.
Built for the opera, as a stage and centerpiece to impress audiences, with the surrounding blocks and roads shaped to make way for it, Palace Garnier is extremely palatial, though it was never a royal home. The lights are now electric but give a decent impression of dim, warm gas-lights.
This is the zone where fancy alcohol is offered beforehand and during intermission. I think the Phantom of the Opera lives in this wing somewhere.
The curtains are real, but there are also painted-on curtains. Real windows, and painted. Real arches, and fake. The sky is real, but the ceiling blocks it with a painted sky; it is always sunny, with fluffy clouds, inside the opera hall. Real cherubs, real half-naked or all-naked nymphs, flitting around the ceiling like birds trapped in a train station. I took some mandatory blurry, ill-lit selfies [not pictured here].
Nimble, pert women --- mostly naked, some bewinged --- crowd about the corners of the ceiling, as if searching for the source of the heavenly music.
If rococo ever makes a comeback, I will gladly count myself among its devoted followers. Modern buildings' off-white walls and grey architectural features, the devotion to sheer flat surfaces and huge reflective windows, forces far too much introspection and beggars the imagination, offering no fodder for daydreams. Much better to beggar the purse, I think, in gilding intricate details so hidden in the ceiling that they are invisible from the floor.
An aura of elegance and refinement is subtly and unsubtly reinforced by the Louis XIV-style gilding of anything stationary.
The music was lush and vibrant, although it did not match the rococo theater, and the set and direction was minimalist, stark, and unsettling. Even in the nosebleed seats, where knees and shoulders are jostled together and there are no aisles, it was a wondrous spectacle to behold. (Plus, we were close enough to the ceiling to count the feathers on cherubs' wings and wonder if the sconce-supporting nude maidens' metal arms ever tire.)

This post's theme word is cosset, "to fondle, caress, pet, indulge, pamper." The cossetting dark embraced the audience of the opera house.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

His Dark Materials

Oceans are wide and crossing them --- even in fast airplanes --- takes time. The time is easily passed in reading and worrying about blood clots forming in stationary extremities. This blog post will focus on the former.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels, and in retrospect I'm pretty sure they are categorized as "young adult" novels, not only because the protagonist(s) are 11-13ish children/pupating humans, but also because of the general attitude demonstrated in the books. I read these books first in high school, and I remember enjoying them immensely; I revisited them in college, when I remember no distinct pleasure; and I reread them just now, and found them irritating. So it seems I've aged out of the target demographic for this, and into an age and decrepitude where I can hobble onto my lawn and shout at the upstart youngsters whilst waving my fist (cane optional) in the air.

Book one, The Golden Compass, features a young girl who is entitled, naive, stubborn, not at all sympathetic. Interesting things happen around her and she actively ignores them. She is afflicted with a cruelly pervasive and powerful case of Protagonist Syndrome, whereby no venture of hers can fail and every incident for which she is present --- even accidentally, even peripherally --- ends up revolving around her actions. She is absolutely crucial (in book 3 this persists even when she is drugged unconscious for several weeks, which beggars the imagination). She accidentally sets off on a quest, and accidentally accomplishes it, and then also accidentally accomplishes a side quest wherein she deposes a king and installs a new one, basically just as something to do to fill an afternoon. Whenever she lingers around adults long enough to hear Portentous Conversation, it is heavily laden with foreshadowing. Explicitly:
"... this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she's just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can't change?" (p. 235)
As per the title, she is recklessly entrusted with the care of a magical "compass", a device which only she can read, and which knows all truths in the universe. It is my sober adult displeasure that she doesn't ask whether P=NP.

Book two, The Subtle Knife, adds to the narrative a young boy. He is actually quite sympathetic, and savvy, and intelligent, and observant, and reasonable in his consideration of choices and actions. It also introduces a grown woman, an ex-nun-turned-experimental-physics-professor (explain that career path, wheedles the reality-check in the back of my mind). The boy receives the titular knife, which is a magical knife (of course --- welcome to the genre of fantasy, The Only One of its Kind, which can cut portals to parallel universes. And is controlled with feelings, because: fantasy.

Book three, The Amber Spyglass, gives the titular (and magical!) object to the physicist, since she is the only main character without a magical device. Like a real scientist, she has to build her tool herself. This is essentially the only part of the book that makes any sense. In the rest of the book, the children run rampant across the author's imagination, swapping between parallel universes at the drop of a hat, having dream-visions which are real, face-to-face meeting big-g God (and witnessing his death, spoiler alert), visiting the afterlife/underworld/land of the dead (which this mythos constructs as simply another parallel universe, somehow).

I ended up liking the boy a lot more than I remembered. And the scientist lady. And what I pieced together, as an adult reader who tore through the books voraciously and was not distracted by the coming-of-age emotional tugs, was that dark matter are particles of consciousness which is misconstrued (? maybe) as original sin in the Catholic tradition. Somehow, sentient, verbal, apparently-free-will-possessing creatures do not possess consciousness in the same way; only humans are special, only humans have souls (somehow also attributable to dark matter!) and ghosts and an afterlife (in a parallel dimension, remember!). Global warming is also wrapped up in the book's proffered explanation of dark matter, as are dementia and obsessive-compulsive disorders. As is evolution, apparently the result of messing about with dark matter, and also of a grudge-match between angels, who, yes, are real.

I think the story works, emotionally, as a coming-of-age story, even though I'm not sure what lessons the protagonist learns other than "growing up is hard and full of challenges, but I can never fail!"

As a piece of coherent fiction, it fails. Its universe(s) are slapdash, a little bit of frankly whatever the plot needed to stay interesting in this chapter, cliffhangers that turn out to be inconsequential, powerful resources which are not called on to solve problems until the last possible instant before oblivion, etc. We learn that angels are real, and pervasively present, and can interact with humans and transmit information faster-than-light. (A good part of books 2 and 3 involves various parties searching for the protagonist, often on behalf of the omnipotent angels, which makes no sense whatsoever.) This should make essentially the entire plot trivial, all problems easy to solve, all difficulties tractable.

I've aged out of this series, I suppose, and into the age where I can endlessly read on the topic of information transmission in WWII, which is relevant, compelling, and scientifically accurate. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for fantasy.

This post's theme word is torpid, "lethargic, apathetic, dormant, benumbed." "The two female Scholars sat up very slightly, though their dæmons, either well behaved or torpid, did no more than flick their eyes at each other." (p. 59)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Inexplicable subway ad

Dear internet:

Please explain.

There was no company name, no tiny print in the corners. Just this equation, whose terms do not look familiar to me. Even the number 0.622 looks unfamiliar, and I don't know what "he" might stand for here --- heat? Some sort of differential equation about heat?


As seen in Gare du Nord, Paris, November 24 (still there December 2).

This post's theme word is alembic "an alchemical apparatus for distilling." (From Miéville's Kraken (p.175), of course, as he is the source of all eldrich vocabulary.) The alembic equation yielded no clarity to the problem.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Neal Stephenson's Anathem is my least favorite of his books. This is high praise, of course, as his Cryptonomicon is my favorite book. As the Wikipedia article states, his works touch on mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency, and history of science. And indeed, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle do touch on all those things, in detail, wonderfully imbricated. Unfortunately, and this is my main complaint, Anathem is just about philosophy. It takes place in a parallel-ish universe and the meat of the story consists of philosophical teaching/exploratory dialogues, starting from the barest of first principles. The point is that they get somewhere, I know, and I don't want to spoil it for the uninitiated. It's excellent, interesting, and it includes a joke that still makes me chuckle aloud to think about. (I'd quote it here, but it's a total spoiler. It has to do with a protractor.)

This reread made me think, again, how much I would have loved to live in a parallel universe where research universities are self-sufficient cloisters, and the university-seeky people are all welcomed inside and valued for their functional abilities. Gender is no obstacle. Everything fits together nicely, it's very satisfying.

I am uniquely privileged in this academic universe to be natively fluent in English, the effective language of scholarship in my field (and most others). I am reminded of this when I watch my colleagues switch from idle conversation (French) to academic conversation (English) --- somehow, my language, which for most of my life has been the only language used around me, is a special tool that my colleagues had to acquire in the course of their studies. It's as if I grew up in some secluded enclave where Latin were the language of daily usage: I would seem more academic, sure, but... it's weird. Sometimes when I zone out at work it is because I am imagining everyone around me speaking Latin. Or French! --- you know, the language of (mathematical) scholarship up until very recently! But mostly my Anathem-inspired daydreams are about everyone speaking Latin, and they involve weird grammatical constructions to backwards-translate the computer science terms that derive from Latin roots, at the distance of many centuries' semantic shifts.

This is a bit of a scattershot post, but I'll finish it with a long quote and then call it a day. This quote tries to simultaneously explain and motivate the lives of cloistered scholars, and also the development of the novel's story, and of all novels' stories, and maybe of all stories altogether. Also of society. It recurses to a meta-level I am currently unequipped to dissect. Translations of book-specific terms provided in [brackets]. Page 355 onwards:
So I looked with fascination at those people... and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who'd made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day's end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn't live without story had been driven into the concents [academic cloisters] or into jobs like Yul's [ad-hoc wilderness guide]. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Saeculars [non-academics] were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part? We avout [academics] had it ready-made because we were a part of this project of learning new things. Even if it didn't always move fast enough... , it did move. You could tell where you were and what you were doing in that story.
It's interesting to note, on reflection, that even inside this novel there is a special branch of academics solely devoted to removing people from their own research-story by providing evidence (and citations) of prior academics who already discovered (and published!) the same results. But the scholar-monks keep going anyway, powered, I suppose, by the same magical brain-pixie-dust that powers me and all my coworkers and all academic colleagues across the world. (A thirst for knowledge?)

I haven't read Seveneves yet, but it's in my queue. I hope it has more of Stephenson's particular type of episodic writing; I prefer it to his straightforward novels.

This post's theme word is gradgrind, "someone who is solely interested in cold, hard facts." The gradgrind's conversational tactics were unorthodox.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Iron King

The streets of Paris were quiet today, and fairly empty. I think people stayed in, or stayed out of the city. It was one of those surreal afternoons where the usual standard of behavior --- don't talk to people on the subway, don't make loud disruptive noises in public --- was being eerily pervasively applied, so that combined with the reduced crowding, everything seemed vaguely dreamlike. As if all of life was experienced at the remove of a cotton ball in the ears, strangely muted. Plus there were no buskers out, and plenty of police in the city center, visibly standing at subway funnel-points.

A fitting day altogether for me to finish Maurice Druon's The Iron King, which culminates with the death of Philip IV (the Fair). GRRM's introduction calls this story "the original game of thrones," but it was not nearly full of enough end-of-chapter Dan-Brown-style plot twists. People mostly acted as their previous descriptions caused one to expect them to act. This could be partly the authorial style --- it is strongly historical-retrospective, as scenes are often described as "very important for what was to come" or "shaping the future history of France". Not many cliffhangers, and of course much less gruesome violence and sex than HBO would require. (This book series has been adapted twice to TV, but I have not yet seen either.)

It is a curious sensation to read a fictionalized account of Real History when I am completely unfamiliar with the actual story. I can read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (fantastic, thrilling, mentally delicious fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VIII's reign) and have a good idea of how the overall story goes, of how it fits into the general course of history, of what mentions of oppressed local ethnic groups are important, foreshadowing, nods to modern issues. This is Absolutely Not The Case for the history of the monarchy of France. My full knowledge of these monarchs comes from a single rainy afternoon in the Cathedral at St. Denis, when I viewed all their tombs, crowded together in a concentration of magnificence, a true timeless monument to the art of marble carvers. And also I guess from broad stereotypes about Marie Antoinette?

So this historical novel can still have surprises for me. I had not previously realized that when we discuss peasants being associated with manor lands, what we mean is slaves --- people who are trapped where they are born, required to labor there for the benefit of someone else. Nevermind if they were allowed to hold money or learn to read, they were effectively slaves. So by the intermediate value theorem, there must have been a point at time when the serfs were freed. By decree, since there wasn't a liberating revolution, or maybe by degrees of decree, gradually. This is a neat realization: the historical point when serfs became people, capable of some (limited) self-determination, and (limited) freedom of movement!

It's also great to see the monarch's move toward (1) bureaucracy, for smoother-functioning kingdom administration through the changes of monarchs, and (2) consolidating Earthly power separate from the sway of religious institutions, two developments which I used to think of as primarily English and as happening about 200 years later. Of course France was there first, and subtler --- no revolution here, no disputed succession. (Not yet, at least --- there are 6 more books in the series.)

I of course enjoyed the fact that I am familiar with the city descended from the Paris described in the book. I have been inside several of the buildings that were, once, the palaces where these intrigues took place. I have stood where they burned heretics, though I did not know it. Also, basically all the buildings in a 10-minute-walk radius of Notre Dame were once palaces. I imagine a network of ziplines that allow commuting between palaces without ever touching the plebian ground.

This post's theme words are several:

  • appanage, "a source of revenue, such as land, given by a sovereign for the maintenance of a member of the ruling family", and
  • hydromel, "a mixture of water and honey," and
  • expiate, "to make amends for; to atone," and
  • cynosure, "an object of attention" or "something that serves to guide," and
  • hieratic, "of or associated with sacred persons or offices."
The king offered an appanage to expiate his offense against the hierarchs, a sort of cynosure to draw their attention to his kindness and sweeten their dispositions like hydromel.

A bit of a stretch, I know, but I'm tired. Can you do better? I'll replace it, with authorial attribution; leave better suggestions in the comments below.

Ancillary Mercy

Ann Leckie's trilogy wraps up with Ancillary Mercy, in which the main character remains in control of a Mercy-level ship, much to my structural disappointment.(Previously: 1, 1', 2, 2'.)

It is a good book. It blurs with the first two in my mind, the characters and dilemmas running together to form one giant glob of plot, so sticky it grabs issues from all fields of thought and coheres them into one object, one magnificent study of How to Properly Conduct Oneself, A Guide for AIs and Humans Alike, with Special Focus on Tea and Gun Safety. Some choice quotes:

  • "you certainly don't have to apologize for insisting your lover treat you with some basic consideration." p.101
  • "You realize... that it's the meds that make you feel like you don't need meds anymore." p.131
  • "Life in the military isn't all dinner parties and drinking tea." p.197

I don't want to comment on any of the plot, whuch unrolls in interesting fashion, not quite the way I would have expected another space opera to resolve. BUT: What is going on with the Presger? This is another race of aliens, super-powerful, not apparently constrained by the same physics or even the same consistently-applied rules of biology, as us. And their characters add a lot of levity to the proceedings, since they speak fluently but have apparently no cultural training, and so are constantly making Alice-in-Wonderland-like non-sequiturs. The novel repeatedly teases right up to the edge of describing something certain about the Presger, then skips over it and simply describes the outcome. My brain is stuck trying to puzzle out how their magical control of physics works. (Why, and how, was the fish still alive?!)

This book, and its trilogy, brought me much enjoyment. I hope to revisit the world of Ann Leckie's imagination soon, and plentifully. Long may she write and be free to explore what she wants with her words.

This post's theme word is wellerism, "an expression involving a familiar proverb or quotation and its facetious sequel. It usually comprises three parts: statement, speaker, situation. Examples: "We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car. Or: "Prevention is better than cure," said the pig when it ran away from the butcher." The Presger translators provide abundant grounds for wellerisms and other wordplay.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ancillary Sword (again)

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword still impresses with its absolute failure to hit any stereotype of the sequel. It is just as engaging, as exciting, as well-developed and -paced and -written as Ancillary Justice; it is not leaning on the first book for any support. It's great. For those who are interested in scifi, or interested in the sort of books that suggest that there is a thoughtful, considerate way to be a person in this world, which will improve your own life and all those around you, read this book. Read it anyway, even if not.

It's not quite at the level of John Scalzi's Zoe's Tale, which made me openly weep on a streetcar once (long, multi-book buildup to a cathartic release one tired evening commute), but it is differently good and still deeply compelling. Something about these books is targeted right at my particular present combination of attitude, thoughts, psychological outlook, brain chemistry, professional preoccupations, etc., and so the books are just resonating along my entire being.

This post's theme word is versal, "universal; whole." No one is quite versal, but we all limp along as best we can, and in the best of company.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ancillary Justice (again)

An excellent book. Still. On this reread (previously), parts of it --- where, despite the genderless society and advancement-by-merit, everything is nepotism and in-group and out-group prejudices anyway --- were so true to life, so precisely fictionally parallel to injustices in reality, that they infuriated me. I had to put the book down, my blood boiling, and wait to calm down, to remind myself that the point of the book is to upset this ruling-class hierarchy. And that I already know how things turn out (in this novel at least), and that some of the most hateful characters are duly punished by the authorial hand of justice.

It doesn't feel very just, though. Which I suppose is one aspect of the pointedly polysemous title.

I am in complete awe of Ann Leckie for producing such a perfect jewel of a book, fully-formed, springing from her mind like Athena from Zeus'. Of course much work and development surely went into it, but still: Ancillary Justice is a novel of consummate perfection. It works on so many levels, it is a space opera and a manifesto on gender and privilege and interpersonal relationships and the meaning of trust and life goals. No one is too small to matter, and no one is too big to have flaws.

Read it already! I'm rereading it to work my way up to the third piece of the trilogy, which has floated to the top of my queue. So, you know, expect to hear about Ancillary Sword soon.

This post's theme word is posset "a drink of hot milk curdled with ale." Brought to you by China Miéville's Kraken, p. 127. The specialty of frozen planet Nilt's beverage selection is essentially posset --- warm, fermented milk, repeatedly described in the most unpalatable terms.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Opera master class

I just saw a master class in opera conducted by Philippe Jordan. Four students presented three pieces, sang through them with various interruptions and corrections, picked up in the middle, made small changes. It was fascinating to see the tiny details of instruction that could have a big impact on the performance. And it was nice to know that the education I received in my Literature & Arts B course on opera --- part of my broad-spectrum liberal arts education, from which cocoon I've emerged an extremely specialized species of math-butterfly --- was spot on. The lines and motifs and dynamics we took apart, meticulously, even pedantically, in the class on opera, were exactly the details that the singers and pianist and conductor also deconstructed.

Perhaps we're all just a product of the same music-studying machine, churning out adoration of Mozart's every trill and embellishment. But at least we match!

This post's theme word is apophenia, "the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data." Opera is the antithesis of the apotheosis of apophenia: the culmination of connotation, in every gesture, word, costume, and backdrop.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Seasonal juxtaposition

In my clime-of-origin, November is already blustery and cold. Snow is possible. So no matter how many times I experience it, the transition to "winter holiday" decorations feels premature and rushed in this tropical locale. Just look:
Yes, that is a snowflake-shaped electric lamp, suspended above a tree still green and flush with leaves. Very silly.

This post's theme word is amaranthine, "unfading, everlasting," or "of a deep purple-red color," or of course "of or relating to the amaranth." That is no amaranthine tree; it is merely an overzealous neighborhood decorating committee.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Seasons change, decades pass

Another couple months, another set of life experiences and retrospective thoughts about them, posted to the internet for all of noisy posterity to (send robots to read, process, glean, and) enjoy. The daylight is noticeably shorter now, we rolled our clocks back in the historically-inherited acknowledgement of centralized time-measuring standards, and tonight everyone dresses up as something else and begs strangers for carbohydrates.

Seems like a reasonable time to reflect on the past decade.

It involved me leaving a lot of things behind: several countries, my life as a student (never again!), relationships tried and broken, and between 10 and 20 pounds.* Oh! Also my original (birth) ACL, gone forever, consigned to history and oblivion (although its replacement's image is immortally online). Now I have a gauche unmatched pair of ACLs. Most of these changes require no special comment; I do reiterate, here as elsewhere, my strongly-held belief that knee injuries should be avoided and knee surgery is not a suitable pastime. (Exceptions possible for knee surgeons.)

Even my fellow crack-of-dawn gym women have commented on the kilograms, though ("Vous étiez ronde... vous avez maigri"). Two sides of the coin (as usual: ignore the metaphorically inconvenient edge). The nice: Of course it is always nice to receive compliments from humans. Robots, not so much. Second, the cool part about converting fat (voluminous) into muscle (dense) is that my skin nerves are closer to my muscles, so I can feel in my skin when I contract my muscles (as well as the normal nerve feedback from the muscles themselves). For some muscles in particular this sensation is novel and thrilling (intercostals!). The irritating: Buying all new clothes is a chore and so everything I've bought is stretchy, it'll fit me as long as I avoid supervillain shrink- or giganticize-rays. Also, now I am even less imposing, and so rush hour subway commutes are a continual struggle to evade crushing and obtain access to enough oxygen at my elevation. Maybe a subway snorkle? Then I could breathe, plus everyone would know there is definitely someone there in that spot-that-looks-like-it's-empty-space-between-tall-people.

I've retroblogged a little recently, but a lot is sliding because it is job-application season in academia.
I have a lot more photos from Japan, and the queue is full of all photos chronologically following that trip. Yes, I evilly withhold content from you while informing you of its existence. I am the gatekeeper of Lila-related ephemera, kneel before me! etc., etc.

This post's theme word is gloze, the transitive verb "to minimize or to explain away," the intransitive verb "to use flattery; to make an explanation; to shine brightly," or the noun "a comment; flattery; a pretense." His gloze glozes, but it is a gloze rather than glozing.

*As a theorist, I acknowledge that a factor-of-two approximation may dissatisfy others, but it depends if you measure from the maximum in the time interval or the average. High variance in the past decade, is my point. Yes, I have the data (much to my theorist shame).

Monday, October 26, 2015

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas is Ian (M.) Banks' first science fiction novel, and his first set in the extended universe of interstellar civilizations, most prominently one called simply "the Culture." The book focuses on Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and agent for the Iridians, who are at war with the Culture. Borza is humanoid, and provides the narration with an accessible entrance-from-the-outside, introducing us readers to the Culture with a critical eye. (He is, after all, voluntarily fighting a war against them, even though he is not Iridian.)

The Culture are a utopia, a moneyless post-scarcity society of plenty dedicated to freedom, fairness, pleasure, and interesting problems; it is managed with a light touch by (sentient) superintelligent computers. Horza sees this as a dystopia, fears and hates the computer intelligences; he argues with his actions and words that the Iridians --- a warlike, three-legged species of keratin-plate-covered giants who are religious fanatics --- are better than, or at least not as bad as, the Culture. It's an interesting authorial approach, since obviously readers will sympathize with the humans in the Culture, and probably prefer their well-managed, worry-free utopia over the Iridians, who are pretty horrible.

The Iridians keep slaves, and are not sentimental, and view even useful humanoid allies like Horza as subordinate not-quite-people. ("What they must feel for the swarming biped tribes of humankind! ... We are nothing to them: mere biomatons" p. 304) But they prefer biological life to computational, and that is enough to motivate Horza through the many disasters, emergency decompressions, painful beatings, and existential crises that he undergoes in the course of the novel.

I like it. Banks is a phenomenal writer --- I read his very disturbing The Wasp Factory years ago and its vivid horrors are forever burned into my brain. The narrative picks a delicate path across interstellar civilizations, giving enough detail to really challenge the imagination without bogging down in endless exposition. Cool ideas that could be the focal point of entire novels are used as background dressing for chapters or even single scenes. The novel's title comes from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a line I've never understood and can't say I understand better after the novel. But I like both works, so their linkage at some fundamental level in the Banks' mind is like a savory nugget, that I can pleasantly return to musing about in my free time.

I unreservedly recommend this book, and will keep you updated with the joys of the rest of the Culture books as I methodically devour them during my commutes.

This post's theme word is noosphere, "the sum of human knowledge, thought, and culture." The Culture's noosphere is replete with curiosities, mysteries, and in-jokes.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Parc Martin Luther King

The contrasting sharp lines of the crisp sidewalk and the crane-filled horizon are nicely offset by the autumnal gradient of trees.
This is the Parc Martin Luther King, with a postmodern dystopian style. I half-expect to see Aeon Flux swinging from crane to crane, leaping and sliding in slickly high-speed cartoon spy style.

This post's theme word is obambulate, "to walk about." I obambulated in my quest to visit every fontaine pétillante (potable carbonated water fountain) in Paris.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Science-fictional chase scene setting

This tunnel near my office is illuminated with pillar-streetlights outlined by sculptural elements. They are vaguely reminiscent of DNA helices, if they had been used as design elements in a subterranean tunnel used in a chase scene in one of Tom Cruise's science-fictional movies.
The sidewalk side is ominous, but the car side is not better, with headlights sweeping across the ceiling and wall features.

This post's theme word is cimmerian, "very dark or gloomy." Go over the bridge, not underneath --- too cimmerian, with its hints of trolls, gremlins, and totalitarian government police forces chasing Mr. Cruise.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Métro Arts et Métiers

Arts et Métiers not only has the coolest museum, it has the coolest subway stop. It's like the inside of a Jules Verne novel.
Apologies if this is a repeat, it's just so cool that I want to tell people about it.

This post's theme word is numismatics, "the study or collection of coins, currency, notes, and similar objects like medals." The steampunk submarine was numismatically decorated, with copper fittings offset by framed pennies.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A huge chunk of Philip K. Dick's back catalog is available from the library as ebooks, and as an upstanding member of the scifi-consuming population, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not recognize when one of PKD's plots or fictional worlds or throwaway idea flavoring was recycled by the parsimonious referential imaginations of today. Thus do I undertake to report on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which sad dystopic future of course formed the basis of Blade Runner. Like the movie, the book is dark, depressive, and gritty, although often leavened by spurts of comic relief which did not make the translation to film.

The plot focuses on bounty hunter Rick Deckard (likely a human), who uses a test of empathy (and a laser pistol) to filter his quarry from the humans left on Earth after a mass exodus to Mars. The humans left behind are mostly too damaged to merit inclusion in the exodus, and have been left on a radioactive-fallout-covered Earth to live as best they can. This includes the reportedly-mentally-deficient J. R. Isidore, who despite his categorization swings wildly between high and low levels of diction when narrating.

The usual Dickian mistrust of the world is pervasive; as Roger Zelazny writes in the introduction, "The worlds through which Philip K. Dick's characters move are subject to cancellation or revision without notice." Legally "deficient" Isidore pines, "If I hadn't failed that IQ test I wouldn't be reduced to this ignominious task with its attendant emotional by-products." (p.60) which offers a pretty good example of the sort of reader double-take that this book induces throughout. For several chapters around the middle of the book there are authorial hints dropped everywhere, the reader can't help but trip on them, suggesting that Deckard himself is an android, but later most of these hints are revoked. He finds a fellow bounty hunter who it seems certain is an android, but turns out to be human; he fails to empathize with some things, but later empathizes with others, so it's all okay.

A main focus of the book, and of the characters inhabiting the book's supremely editable world, is whether androids --- fully biological in construction --- can empathize, and how much, and what sorts of empathy are required to validate someone as a full person. Personhood is a focus, as it gives protection against the imminent threat of bounty hunting, but also it gives a larger protection in the book's strange and mostly-unexplained alien (?) religion of Mercerism, by which humans (and only humans, not androids!) can empathically fuse with all other religious participants, thereby escaping the bleak radioactive present reality. (Nevermind that they escape to a different bleak reality.) The takeaway message seems to be thus:

  1. Empathy makes personhood. (Anything passing the Turing test should receive the rights of a full human.)
  2. Opera does not protect against murder.
  3. Owls and spiders are valuable and underappreciated.

This post's theme word is ailuromancy, a form of magic especially focused on/with cats. (Brought to you by Mieville's Kraken, p. 400.) The electric veterinarians were not experts in ailuromancy, and so relied on their insurance policy to cover the dead (real) cat.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Better than advertising

I appreciated this chalk-graffiti inside the frames that some enterprising artist put there before the ads could be installed:
It's vaguely like Celtic knotwork, or stylized ocean waves, or simply idle doodles writ large.
Someone with a lot of time filled in the entire hallway of billboard frames.
It's great. I wish the Powers That Be would leave it, the pale dusty chalk a nonintrusive visual tickle instead of the blaring colors and words of advertisements.
The emptiness of the spaces is also very satisfying.

This post's theme word is bursiform, "shaped like a pouch or sac." The bursiform squiggles could read visually as a variety of abstractions.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Le Nozze di Figaro

I indulgently watched the nearly four-hour-long opera Le Nozze di Figaro last night, a production by Opera Zurich, as broadcast in a comfortable theater in Paris. It was fun, as always, the jokes funny and the musical jokes precise (thanks, Mozart!) and beautifully executed.

One really nice thing about watching operas broadcast in movie theaters is that the camera can zoom in much further than my unassisted eyes, so previously-hidden details become visible: tiny facial movements, costuming specifics. Corners of props and the patterns in the wallpaper. It's nice. Also, the movie theater seats are squishy and comfortable, and viewers have fewer compunctions about coughing during the music. (It recently got colder here, so everyone is sniffling and switching to heavier scarves.)

This particular production had a slightly ribald director --- much of the staging was fairly explicit, to my surprise. (I have previously seen only G-rated versions.) Plus the "trapped in the closet" sequence (hah!) featured a rifle being loaded and brandished across the stage, which was unexpected and added a particularly dark and violent edge to the Count's suspicions about who is hiding in the closet. This echoed the violence of stabbing scissors and knives into all of the cardboard boxes onstage in the first scene (one of which, of course, contains mischievous Cherubino).

I've settled into a version of adulthood that I quite like, where the unusual times I am out late on a weeknight, in a crowded venue, sneaking out of work early to wait in line, I am there to watch an opera and I am among the youngest 10 people in the room (by several decades, although kudos to the three <10 acts="" all="" by="" four="" i="" intoxicated="" it="" kids="" made="" only="" sober="" through="" totally="" who="">leitmotifs
 and the neverending escalation of "sua madre?" "sua madre!" "sua madre?" "sua madre!" "sua madre?" "sua madre!" which, once it starts in my brain, never quite reaches the point of musically ripening into the next verse (hint: "sua padre?" etc.) and just continues, forever.

This post's theme word is Apollonian, "serene, harmonious, disciplined, well-balanced." The Apollonian music was matched by the symmetrical staging (with the exception of the odd number of ponies onstage in act IV).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Nerd joke re: genetic engineering

A nice snippet of a joke from SlateStarCodex (and a much longer, serious, sober post), but too long for Twitter: "everything about genetic engineering raises thorny scientific and ethical quandaries, and I can only hope we don’t drag our feet in creating the eight-foot-tall IQ 300 supermen who can solve them."

Aaaaah, nerd jokes.

This post's theme word is hebephrenia, "a form of insanity occurring at puberty." I wonder: will the genetically engineered superhumans will still occasionally evince hebrephenia?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

City on fire[works]

I'm culturally immersed, is what I am, and so often things happen around me which I find unusual, surprising, unexpected, and notable. Take, for example, the loud explosive sounds I heard tonight, whose source I identified as some fireworks being set off a few blocks away.
... and the lunatics yelling at the moon, it's the end of the world, yes!
The light was visible just over the rooftops, in luminous bursts. I think the fireworks must have been low ones --- maybe just very bright, loud firecrackers --- being set off in the park, or perhaps in some permissive building's courtyard.

No idea why. October 10th? Was it a celebration of sports, or history, or current events? Educate me or guess in the comments below.

This post's theme word is auscultate, "to listen to the sounds made by internal organs to aid in diagnosis." My experience in civil auscultation suggested a group party.

Tales from Earthsea

I'm on the last stretch of these delicious Earthsea stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. The fifth book, Tales from Earthsea, collects several short stories set in everyone's favorite diverse, mostly-brown-skinned, women-valuing archipelago non-industrialized fantasy world (plus magic and dragons are real). These stories precede the novel stories, and fit in the interstices between those longer works: we get short glimpses into the deep history of the world, as well as smaller episodes in the lives of well-known characters.

The stories are short and sweet, full of the small details of characters enjoying moments --- sun on their faces, the last bite of a perfectly ripe pear, placidly drawing water and completing household chores --- whose calming affect I so enjoy in all the works set in Earthsea. Yes, there is some conflict, but usually the story is driven, instead, by characters trying to find out information, or seeking to build something new, and the conflict happens somewhere offstage and is only commented-upon by onstage characters. There are some confrontations, some climactic scenes, but more numerous are the scenes where people tend their farms, and go for long walks, and teach each other the words to long historical lays.

Earthsea is a lovely place to visit. Ursula K. Le Guin's notes, too, extend this envelope of comfort beyond simply the stories in the books. It is clear that what I enjoy, and find so heartening and interesting and comfortable and rewarding as a reader, is some innate property of the author, and the books are simply a medium carrying this psychological effect from her to me. Her authorial notes (appended to the end of my library copies of the books) make it clear that, although the words are sometimes simple, and the characters are often uneducated, the author has thought, deeply, about what the stories mean, how they should be presented, and what effect they have on the world.

Plus there are dragons!

A wizard's staff is always described as being "exactly his height", but since people gradually become bowed and stooped with age, does that mean that older wizards' staves (staffs?) also bend or shrink?

This post's theme word is enjoin, "to order or prescribe a course of action," or "to forbid or restrain. " The wise of Earthsea spend much time enjoining their own powers, rather than using puissance as an excuse for action.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

In a hole in a hill there lived a hobbit...

This hill mysteriously appeared in a courtyard at the Louvre. I suspect it was some marketing gimmick, but it ignited my imagination nonetheless.
It is covered with purple stalks of flowers, possibly lavender, possibly fake lavender, possibly something else entirely.
Clues of marketing gimmick: the door to the interior is labelled "Dior" in fancy letters. Dramatic lights surround the hill for nighttime viewing. Security fence and guards prevent the curious public from approaching too close.

This post's theme word is agee (adv), "to one side; awry." The manmade hill tilts agee; I wouldn't walk there, if I were you.

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament) is a film nicely established by its first line: "God is real, and he lives in Brussels." The premise is extended by the stipulation that God lives in a top-floor apartment, which he has never left since the beginning of time, with his wife and 10-year-old daughter (his son having snuck out in a well-documented episode and Gotten Into A Bit of Trouble With The Romans). He runs everything through an outdated computer in his bigger-on-the-inside home office. And "runs everything" really means everything: we see him devising weather disasters, the rule that "the other line always moves faster", and managing individuals' lives, all through this computer.

God is also kind of horrible, true to the Old Testament version of things. Corporal punishment, strict rules, no empathy with suffering. His daughter sneaks into his office, SMSes everyone on the planet with their exact date of death, changes the root password, and then escapes the apartment (Jesus told her that the washing machine has a secret tunnel down to the Earth!). When God (of course) follows her, to try to retrieve (1) his daughter, and (2) access to his omnipotent computer, he is confronted with the unpleasantnesses of the world that he devised. To great comedic effect. The directors, editors, and writers clearly want God to be an unsympathetic character, and they are successful. His sympathetic daughter, of course, seeks apostles while on Earth and has a scribe (homeless man) following her, writing a new testament. She does some miracles, just light ones --- doubling a sandwich, walking across a canal. Nothing showy, but played for laughs in contrast with God's clear lack of powers (he plunges into the canal, and is hungry, dirty, and eventually deported).

It was a neat movie, although it didn't contain as many laughs as I expected from the premise. Many of the apostles' stories (interwoven, of course, throughout the film) were lonely and bleak, and invited serious reflection in the audience. (The color palette, dominated by greys and rain, echoed this.) These were intercut with cute "news" segments showing ridiculous things, but the overall tone was more somber than expected. (I think I expected something more silly, like the tone of Amélie.)

I recommend.

This post's theme word is naches, "emotional gratification or pride, especially taken vicariously at the achievement of one's children." Not much naches is on display here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Statuary at the Victoria & Albert

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a beautiful, well-lit, thoughtfully arranged collection of art and art-like objects. It breaks with the stereotypical joke about British museums: most pieces are accompanied by a title plaque which indicates their provenance. (British Museum, I'm looking at you: "basically an active crime scene." - John Oliver) The day was too beautiful to spend much of it indoors, but I did sneak in and poke around the astonishing collection of statuary and... statue-like things:
The scrolling scenes on the pillars tell a story.
The rooms containing these items were themselves pretty, although a bit toned-down and plain, I think to divert visual focus onto the art. Solid-colored walls, understated balcony railings, beautiful square skylight grid.
Door decorations, things to hang on the wall, and freestanding... art? of religious significance?
The pulpits, excised from the cathedrals and collected like medical specimens.

The museum entrance is luminously bright, with a giant open space. In the center of this space was hanging a special... piece. Not quite a chandelier, since it served no lighting function, but in the place a chandelier would go and of similar size, vertical style, and eye-catching details.
The view from below as our tentacly overlords dangle the bait.
I don't remember finding a title placard for this piece of magnificence, but I think of it simply as "default hair behavior without intervention". Yes, in blues and greens.
Level side view of the glassy fuzz of curls.

Across the street from the V&A sits the Natural History Museum, which sprawls over a much larger footprint and is completely and totally delightful. Again, since I was in London for The Single Sunny Day of 2015, I did not spend much time inside. But still... I spent several hours. It was very, very cool. I went on a quest for the whale skeletons --- large, but surprisingly difficult to locate in the museum's people-flow maze. Their full majesty was impeded by the extensive scaffolding supporting the scientists employed to clean and stabilize the whale skeletons, in what must be the coolest boring job title in the city: Blue Whale Rib Duster.
This open space filled with a fine lace of metal and wood.

This post's theme word is crepitate, "to make a crackling or popping sound." The suspended cetacean skeleton's crepitating boded ill for the giraffes and hippopotamuses below.